“Is this ok?”
I was 16 and was showing off a bouquet of flowers from the garden I had arranged for the dinner table. My mom–a wonderful cook and gardener–looked up from the kitchen and said, “It’s perfect! You’re so creative! I can never get flowers to look like that…”
As I grew older, learned some more skills, discovered Pinterest, my mother continued to express a certain mixture of pride and jealousy at my creative abilities. Which completely baffled me. Her meals are always both yummy AND attractive. Her garden is a delight. She sewed a lovely prom dress for me–a very picky and indecisive teen. She helped me solve tricky interpersonal problems as a young adult. How could she think she wasn’t creative? Much later–painfully–I admitted to myself, she might be right. There is a subtle difference between her creative activities (cooking, gardening, sewing, etc) and mine. Her creativity is about following the rules she has learned to make things look nice. My creativity is about using items for a different function than what they were originally intended. Case in point:
BUT–I learned–that didn’t mean she couldn’t become MORE creative (and she totally has. Mom, if you’re reading this, I love you and think you’re awesome.)
Creativity is becoming an important business and academic buzzword. We’re beginning to recognize as a society that rote-internalization of “best practices” are not working in a turbulent, globalized world. We want to train our kids to think. This is no less important in Emergency Management. A disaster response is fast, changeable, and problematic. It requires creative thinking to solve unusual problems.
It’s important for you too. During a disaster, you’ll also need to solve unanticipated problems. They may be as small as: I have one headlamp and a family of 4 that wants to use it. But just because the problem is relatively small, doesn’t mean the solution isn’t impactful for you and your family.
But we–as my mom exemplified–still think creativity is a type of genius. Not everyone grows up to be Picasso. It’s a talent you’re born with. Wrong. Sort of. There are two kinds of creativity. Dr. Gerrard Puccio, Chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, calls them “Creativity” and “creativity”. Capital-C Creativity is the type of Picasso, Einstein, Michael Jordan genius which might have a genetic component (it’s not something we understand well). Small-C creativity is universally hard-wired into your brain. “You’re human and you have an imagination,” he says. “You are wired to be creative.” This kind of creativity can be taught, practiced, and grown as demonstrated by creativity degrees cropping up hear and there. If you thought, “oh ya, I guess you could you a vase to hold makeup brushes. I bet a cup, bowl, bread loaf tin, or empty coffee canister would work too,” you were demonstrating the innate ability you need during an emergency. You already have the skill. The trouble is, we’ve forgotten how to use it.
So how do you remind your brain to think creatively about problems? These are scientifically-unproven, anecdotally-sound tips from my own life.
1. Don’t panic. Unexpected problems can be scary. Imagine having hungry children and realizing that you don’t have cash and none of the stores’ credit machines are working. It’s easy to panic a little bit, but intense anxiety can get in the way of creative problem solving–just like stage-fright can make you forget your lines. Take a deep, purposeful breath or two. Begin brainstorming. Can you get to cash? Is there someone who can help you? Is there somewhere farther away you can go? Is there a shelter? etc.
2. Believe creativity can be trained like a muscle. Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset that people who believe that they are born with a finite amount of traits like intelligence or creativity don’t do well in life because they avoid challenges. Failure just point out their limits which is psychologically uncomfortable. But people who believe they can learn and improve on those traits do better because they try their best at challenges and learn from mistakes. In fact, they do learn to be more intelligent or creative. (Side note: this is one of the few books that I can honestly say changed my life. I highly recommend it. It’s a really interesting read on top of being important.)
3. Gather ideas. Creativity is NOT about developing a unique product from scratch (contrary to popular belief). It’s about recycling, refining, combining, adapting, rearranging, reapplying ideas. For a long while, I thought that as a fiction writer I had to sit alone and think about my story so that it would remain pure from influence. But, like water in the Dead Sea, I got stuck. I needed input from as many sources as possible. I needed to dialogue with other ideas in order for my story to be fresh and lively–ironically.
3b. Gather ideas from EVERYWHERE. I’ve talked about Pinterest before, because I think it does a good job of collecting folk solutions or life hacks. My creativity has bloomed since I began looking at other people’s work on Pinterest. But gathering ideas is more than knowing a lot about one topic (which is helpful). Being creative is partially about applying ideas from one field to another. My Brother the Scientist likes to say NO science is wasted; it always tells us something worth knowing. In Emergency Management, we like to apply ideas from Psychology, Marketing, Geology, Engineering, etc. But people like you are doing MORE. They’re applying ideas about Permaculture, upcycling, reusing “trash”, and skills like macrame, sewing, origami to philosophies about resiliency and self-sufficiency. Here are some good examples (see credit links at end–formatting reasons):
3c. Use others. When you get stuck, seek advice or bounce ideas off of others. Two heads are better than one for a reason. Sometimes just trying to explain the problem to another novice is a good way to understand the problem more deeply and stumble upon a solution.
4. Experiment. And fail. Creativity is also a little dependent on experience. Innovations are often on “the fringe” so to speak–past all the common, already-in-the-box ideas. We have to work through all the middle stuff before we can explore the unknown. And in order to explore the unknown, we can’t be afraid to fail a little. That’s how we learn whether it’s a good idea or a bad one! My brother used to say, “If you don’t fall down once or twice, you aren’t skiing hard enough.”
5. Be patient and persistent. You’re asking your brain to do something hard. Sometimes solving a problem doesn’t come all at once. Sometimes you have to sleep on it or think about something else for a while.
6. Find another perspective. This might be the hardest one. But this is also where gathering ideas can be helpful. If you’re especially stuck on a problem, step back, and begin brainstorming different ways of looking at it. Then, try on those each ways. See if anything pops.
Your creativity might be the most important tool in your disaster response arsenal. Don’t forget to practice it!
What do you think about creativity? How do you practice it? Tell us below!
- You’re Elusive Creativity: TED talk — if you watch nothing else, watch this.
- Success, Failure, and the Drive to Keep Creating: TED talk
- 4 Lessons in Creativity: TED talk
- Where Does Creativity Hide?: TED talk
Links to Gallery
1. Duct tape uses by YearZeroSurvival
2. Food storage for homesteading and the apocalypse by Modern Homesteading
3. Paracord projects by Instructables
4. Paracord project uses by SurvivalLife
5. First aid kit by a SpoonFullofSugar
After this post went to print, I found this TED talk by a Tokyo-based toy developer who was asked by his boss to develop toys based on market studies. He found that looking at data killed his creativity and made up a game to spark his creative juices again. It’s directly related to point #3 and it’s a lot of fun.
UPDATE 3/24/15: (wow..like every week, I find something new that applies, eh?)
I just learned about the “Diffusion of Innovations Model” which basically says that where there is a moderate amount of heterogeneity, innovations can diffuse through the population. When you have friends that are a little different than you, you get new ideas. (It can’t be TOO different, or the population will reject it, but it can’t be too much the same or no new ideas exist.). Academia proves #3 again. I love it.